In the recent episode about vacation words, we said that you write the abbreviation for “rest and relaxation” with an ampersand—“R&R”—and I thought some of you might want more information about the ampersand because it’s an odd little symbol that used to be part of the alphabet, and it also turns out that it’s name is something of a mondegreen, a word based on a misunderstand or mishearing.

The History of the Ampersand

Nobody knows who invented the ampersand, according to Keith Houston, who writes the Shady Characters website about punctuation and symbols and has published a book by the same name. The earliest known use of an ampersand is in graffiti on a wall in Pompeii. 

The Latin word for “and” is “et,” and the ampersand symbol was originally formed as a blend of those two letters: E and T. Today, when letters are connected like this in typefaces, we call them ligatures. When I think of ligatures, I always think of the A and E you sometimes see connected in words like “encyclopædia.”

I can’t recommend the Shady Characters website to you enough if you’re interested in more history on the ampersand, or really any punctuation mark or symbol. Here’s one delightful line from Keith’s pages on the ampersand:

Sim­il­arly, the it­alic am­persand has be­come something of a play­ground for ty­po­graph­ers, and many it­alic am­persands are in­tric­ately de­signed works of art when com­pared to their con­form­ist ro­man coun­ter­parts.

And it’s true. Play around with typing ampersands in different fonts and then changing the text to italics to see the huge variety in how it’s styled.

The Ampersand Was Once Part of the Alphabet

So how is the name “ampersand” a mondegreen? Well, first you need to know that the ampersand used to be the last “letter” of the alphabet. Children would recite the end of the alphabet as “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” with that last “and” being the ampersand symbol. “Per se” is Latin for “by itself,” so they were essentially saying “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.”

And as an aside, back in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they used a completely different rhyme from what kids today use to learn the alphabet called “Apple Pie…

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  • August 8, 2019